The Cowboys are replete with talent at several spots, including the skill positions on offense. But that is all for naught if the Cowboys do not improve their protection. The first step toward that end is a swap of two starters from last season.
"The starting point for us next year is Tyron (Smith) will start at left tackle and Doug (Free) will start at right tackle," head coach Jason Garrett confirmed at the NFL's Scouting Combine.
Garrett said the move had to do with flexibility as much as anything.
"The versatility that Tyron had coming out (of USC) is something we were really attracted to," Garrett said. "He was a right tackle in college, as you know, but we felt like he had the physical traits to play left tackle. Same with Doug Free. We felt he could play either side."
The Cowboys did not want to throw the then-20-year-old Smith into the fire at left tackle as a rookie, especially not without the benefit of a full offseason, which was shortened a year ago from the lockout. Another consideration: Free had just signed a long-term deal and was coming off a fine season as the team's left tackle in 2010.
But an interesting thing happened. Smith, the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, had a great season and Free appeared to regress — badly, at times, when it came to handling speed.
So the questions that now exist are whether Smith can play as well on the left side and whether Free is as good as the contract he earned prior to last season.
Of course, there also is the matter of shoring up the interior. The Cowboys need to add a guard or a center — with Bill Nagy and Phil Costa offering some positional flexibility between the two spots. And it's not clear that, even with improvement, Nagy and Costa warrant starting spots.
Many have speculated that the Cowboys will be players in the free-agent market, perhaps going after the Saints' Carl Nicks as a solution at guard. But the draft also stands as a possibility for fixing — after all, if it worked so well for Smith a year ago, the same effect could happen this season.
"To be able to draft a guy with the ninth pick in the draft and for him to come in and really play every down for us from minute one on the offensive line was pretty impressive," Garrett said. "So if we can achieve that again at any position, it would be a real positive for us."